One of your protégés, Joss Stone, appears on the album with you. What was it like working with her again?
Well, from the time when she was 15 to now, I think those ten years have been a revelation. Sometimes when you work with child stars you think this is going to be about a hot minute and you’ll never get to hear from them again, but I know that she’s a born singer and that’s what she does and even if she doesn’t do it for money she can always do it because it’s a natural gift. That won’t be a problem. If she doesn’t sing it will just be because she’s decided that she just wants to be maybe a midwife or something else, something organic because she’s an organic person.
You’ve also got rappers Snoop Dogg and Lil Wayne on the CD. What was it like working with those guys?
They’re like my sons and nephews and all the young men I know: they have a lot of love and respect for mamma and auntie, and I’m just one more auntie. It’s like working with your own kids. They love me like that and kiss me on my forehead and tell me they love me and that they’re my baby and I’m their sugar and we have a love-fest. We vibe together. Snoop came to my house to help programme the track (‘Real Woman’) and he’s the one that came up with that whole scenario and the story that says “where are the real women at?” “Where are they? We couldn’t be dogs if they weren’t the way that they are.” He’s saying just don’t blame it all on the men. I can’t take credit for that (laughs).
Going back right to the beginning, you started performing music publicly very early on, didn’t you?
Yes, I did. I was almost two, the first time I recorded, with my family group. They were called the Echoes Of Joy.
What do you remember about those early days in the gospel group?
Just being woken up, like shaken and awakened by my mama saying “it’s your time, it’s time for you to sing. Straighten up, straighten up! Let me pull your hair out of your sweater, let me brush your hair.” I’d fall asleep and be cold in the back of the church and they’d call us up late. We were the kids and we should have gone on first but they wanted to save the best for last so they would save us to go on before the main act. And boy, let me tell you, I had plenty of days in school when I was asleep. The teacher would say: “are you asleep?” And I would tell them that I had been singing the night before and they would just shake their heads. I know they really wanted to report my mum until they realised that I was an A student. You could wake me up and I could tell you the answer to a question they asked. I was always a good student but I was a sleepy student.
You recorded your first single, ‘Thank You Baby,’ when you were thirteen. How did that come about?
I’d won a ‘Guess That Tune’ contest in Miami, Florida, on the radio station WMBM. I went to collect my prize at Johnny’s Record Shop I was singing along to the record that I won, which was Billy Stewart’s ‘Summertime,’ and really having a good day (she starts trilling in Billy Stewart’s extravagant vocal style). Some guys came out the back room and said: “who is that singing?” I didn’t realise I had drawn a crowd. I had my eyes closed, just singing to myself. They heard my voice and asked me if I could do the song all the way through with all of the (vocal) effects. They loved it and decided they wanted to record me. I didn’t want to tell them how old I was ‘cos I knew they were going to say get on down the road. I kept going to rehearsals and finally, they wanted to go meet my mum and I was terrified. Anything other than gospel, my mother didn’t want to hear it. So when they went to my house to ask her if I could record they almost got thrown out on their heads. But I kept my grades up at school and eventually, she allowed me to record. We just wore her out. I kept saying “please, please, please,” just like James Brown.
I always wondered how your parents felt about you going into the music business, especially as you entered it at such a young age.
I think they let me because I was a good kid – they didn’t ever have to come and get me and put me in a juvenile detention facility. Basically I was a good kid. I did all the right things in school; the science fairs and the spelling bees. I was at the top of my class so they didn’t have a problem. I was always in church too. That singing thing to me was a means of earning a living. My mother was hospitalised with a slipped disc in her back and I was able to take care of myself. I went to work in a wig shop and sewed labels in wigs and entered talent contests and stacked up my money to pay bills. So I’ve been working all my life.